The Slings and Arrows of Spec Ops: The Line

Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line has managed to become something of a critical darling since being released in June, despite rather lacklustre sales. Many reactions to the game have spelt out similar themes: derivative but passable gameplay, linearity masquerading as choice, stock characters and… holy crap, what happened there? Suddenly this paint-by-numbers shooter gets interesting as it begins taking its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous film adaptation Apocalypse Now. Shit, as it were, begins to get real, with descents into madness, player-driven war crimes, American on American warfare, torture, violence, aggression, horror and an uncanny of-this-world-but-out-of-this-world setting. The game’s driving force appears to be the capture and manipulation of expectations, closely followed by the shoving of said expectations where the sun shineth not.

Or, at least, so I’m told. I haven’t played it. I had a pop at the demo when it came out on PSN and was relatively unoffended. I’d read a few bits on the game beforehand and was interested to see what would present itself. I particularly remember a piece by Ben Kuchera on Penny Arcade Review and the big deal made of the sandy surrounds, especially the opportunities for context-specific warfare using the ruinous environment. Ben’s an experienced writer, and when he’s excited about a game, that enthusiasm permeates right through his words and into me. If not exactly excited, I was certainly intrigued. What we got in that demo, Ben and I, was an on-rails helicopter chase scene in which we, of course, manned the minigun. ‘Jesus Christ’, I uttered to myself. I’m not sure what Ben said on his first play. He probably just sighed.

It wasn’t a total let down, you understand. It was just… same old same old. This felt like a game I’d played a thousand times before. Granted, it has some original backdrops, the sand-wrecked Dubai is a gorgeous environment. But here I am zip-lining, cover-shooting, grenade-lobbing my way across it. Regular cannon-fodder enemies mixed in with the odd shotgun-wielding brutes? Check. Sniper sections? Check. Oh look, that gentleman over there has an RPG. I bet if I shoot him at just the right moment he’ll fire at the floor taking down a few of his mates… check. Don’t get me wrong, if this demo had Syphon Filter in the title and had come out 10 years ago, this paragraph would have a whole different outlook. But it didn’t. And so this doesn’t.

Then something happened. Something about the game seemed to have a little more intensity than normal. Not in the gameplay, but in the background chats, in the cutscenes, in the atmosphere. The demo concludes, (as they all do these days) with a trailerish, ‘Here’s what you could get if you buy me!’ montage, but this one actually piqued my curiosity. The game went into my Buy It If There’s Nothing Else Around file. And then in a shop the other day I picked up Uncharted 3 instead.

Is it fair, then, for me to comment further on Spec Ops? I wouldn’t do so about any other game. If I haven’t played something I’ll say so, and then we’d probably abandon that particular discussion and move on to something more mutually enabling. (How’s the weather where you are?) Goodness knows that I wouldn’t usually sit down and write a couple of thousand words for OntGeek on a game I haven’t played! But something else is going on here, something unique.

I‘m not sure Spec Ops: The Line wants to be played.

On the surface, The Line looks like a standard military-themed third person shooter. Underneath, it’s something else entirely. - Daniel Golding

Like the good little aspiring games writer that I am, I spend plenty of my time reading about our mutual interest. I’ve read a lot about Spec Ops: The Line; you may also have done so. For a while there it got a little unavoidable as ‘Spoiler Warning!’-ridden reviews cropped up all over the place, followed by bemused critics and bloggers on their Twitter feeds wondering what the hell just happened to them. I think Brendan Keogh may be writing a thesis on it, for Christ’s sake!  As much as Spec Ops may have passed by the general public’s notice, critics have at the very least been interested. Here, finally, is a game with a message. And the message appears to be: Fuck You.

The Line looks at the player directly and asks the question: “What is wrong with a person for wanting to play a game like me?”Daniel Golding

Spec Ops: The Line is actively involved in turning you against the drive behind games like this… the characters’ uncertainly over what they were doing, their angst, for lack of a better term, was my own. Arthur Gies

I felt troubled as I played. Spec Ops wanted me to feel troubled. That is a mighty strange thing to pay for and to want to keep playing…. One thing’s for sure: I feel sick at the idea of playing another shooter any time soon Alec Meer

Spec Ops’ narrative, in stark contrast to (or perhaps intriguing complicity with) its generic gameplay is built to challenge its players’ comfort. How many times in your gaming life have you shot a man in his face without flinching? Hell, I bet you’ve cheered a good headshot. And here you’ll rain phosphorous down on friendlies, enemies and refugees alike. In Call of Duty you walked into an airport lounge and opened fire into the innocent bodies of bystanders. Ok, maybe you didn’t shoot during No Russian, but you let it happen. Perhaps you popped a little shot at the terrorists your CIA operative was attempting to infiltrate, but it didn’t work, did it. And you let it continue. ‘It was scripted’, you’re saying. ‘I had no choice!’ You left the console on. You let it run. It’s only a game while you’re playing.

‘But what else could I do?’

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler within the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep…

In the extraordinarily famous third soliloquy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark ponders aloud his next move. Shakespeare’s troubled young hero is a man who seems in the midst of some mad nightmare, in which bad consistently turns to worse and worse still. Life, for Hamlet at this point, is a punishment wrought upon him for no good reason, a violent assault of ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. What to do? How to proceed? Action or passivity? Persist or desist? Suffer or take arms?

It’s not an uncommon dilemma. Whether to act or allow things to take their course is a question that faces us all, on various scales, regularly. For Hamlet, the stakes have been driven as high as they get; he is wondering whether to continue living or remove himself to ‘that sleep of death, what dreams may come’.

One of the fascinating features of this passage is the way Shakespeare configures Hamlet’s idea of action and inaction, what exactly it means to be or to not to be. It’s important first to contextualize what we’re reading. While Hamlet is a notoriously difficult play to date in terms of its setting, we do know that Shakespeare was writing for a late 16th-century English audience which highly valued its Christian beliefs, Protestant or Catholic. This is a speech about a man contemplating suicide being made directly to an audience who have been brought up to believe suicide is a sin, an assault on God’s work, and the coward’s way out. But look again at Hamlet’s words:

Whether ‘tis nobler within the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep…

For Hamlet, in total opposition to a view arguably maintained to this very day, continuing to live is the act of passivity. Hamlet recognizes that life is something thrust upon him, and you and I, push as we might, we’ll never shift its path. In his case, of course, this is particularly true- this is a man trapped in his own Tragedy. Shakespeare is his God and, the hallmarks of tragedy being what they are, he is unlikely to be a benevolent Maker. Hamlet’s suicide is framed as the active option because only by performing it could he redirect the narrative of his own life, only then would the ‘Sea of Troubles’ be opposed and ended. Hamlet is being dragged through a torturous narrative against his will and against his better interests.

Sound familiar?

In our lives we are able to affect our future through our actions. This changes when we allow ourselves to be placed into a pre-written narrative. I’ve written before on how videogames involve an inhabitation of the player-character: In playing, we adopt a hybrid identity, and by doing so we expose ourselves to the fatalistic nature of the linearity. For all intents and purposes the developer is God, she makes the road and we must follow it. Spec Ops’ narrative power is derived from the catch-22 into which it places the player through their engagement with the game: we must play to discover the message, but the message denounces the ease with which we commit atrocities in the name of play. This cyclical back-and-forth between playing the game and the game’s meaning closes a trap of responsibility. Even the game’s loading screens are in on it – ‘This is all your fault’, they begin to say towards the end.

Spec Ops therefore questions just what it means for us to choose to engage with it. Our assumption, based on received wisdom, is that the active choice with regards to a game is to play it. Oh sure, I’ve turned away from plenty of games, perhaps it’s not very good or perhaps it isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood at the right time. But I’m so used to wide scale violence and destruction that it’s never occurred to me to turn off a game because of it, to make it cease. Or perhaps I’m so used to wide scale violence and destruction because it’s never occurred to me to turn it off. Once playing, the default setting for the game is On; to turn it off would be a demonstration of passivity, an insult to the creators’ work. It would be a sin. This correlates with the received wisdom Hamlet challenges by reimagining his suicide as an active response to his burdens. The difference between him and you and I, of course, is that Hamlet’s life is absolutely predetermined. Like us, he might only be able to guess whether he is controlled by fate, but while we can’t answer for sure for ourselves, we know that he is. Because of this, Hamlet’s suicide would more closely resemble switching off a game before you are meant to than ending your own life. Like Hamlet, then, we must question whether the truly active measure is to remove oneself from the whole situation. The answer to, ‘But what else could I do?’ may well be to opt out completely.

So, will I play it? I’m not sure. I think actively choosing to call Spec Ops’s bluff by opting out could be an interesting way to engage with it. But then, the only reason I know that the game carries this meaning is through reading spoilers and critiques. In that way, perhaps I’ve already failed to break out of its catch-22 entrapment by exposing myself to its more provocative and accusatory conceits. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know.

Leave a Reply